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Genre January

Our film critic sorts through some recent streaming and VOD titles.

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Much of my cinematic time in January is spent watching old movies and foraging for genre chestnuts. Streaming outlets crush everything together. Take one turn and you’re picking among titles that could have been curated by Film Forum. Take another turn, and you’re in the digital equivalent of the discount DVD bin at Walmart.

Today, let’s feed our lizard brain and sort through the bin while the cold wind billows outside …

“M3GAN” (Gerard Johnstone)

The highest profile item on this list, as “M3GAN” received a theatrical release that has paid off nicely for horror film über-producer Jason Blum. The monster here is ingeniously conceived: a life-size robot doll for children that lives squarely in the uncanny valley and has advanced powers of artificial intelligence. Think Alexa meets Kid Sister meets Chucky. With this thing, the filmmakers shrewdly tap multiple viewer pressure points at once, including anxieties about the rise of invasive technology, dwindling time between working parents and children, and the mean girls at school who exert influence in the wake of said parents’ absence. There are a few brilliant scenes, such as when M3gan comforts a child during a demo for her manufacturing company, and her pre-programmed, baldly cheesy manipulations make even scientists and stockholders cry. Such moments are moving and satirical, satiating and critiquing our need to seek solace in machines that, lest we forget, have been designed to make money above all else. A child bonds with M3gan and is divorced from life just as social media has pushed many of us into private, distorted corners. Speaking of corporate concerns, this film has been held on a tight PG-13-rated leash so as to reach its target audience, which is a shame. “M3gan” doesn’t offer much catharsis, lacking the sick drive that makes for a horror classic. If only this surprisingly sturdy movie had been directed by Paul Verhoeven in the ‘80s. (In theaters now, on VOD next week.)

“Sick” (John Hyams)

Another Jason Blum production with another shrewdly timely high concept that, in this case, involves slasher-movie hijinks set against the initial outbreak of COVID-19. Since the bedrock of slasher movies involves isolation not dissimilar to that of early pandemic life, this is a clever conflation. “Scream” creator Kevin Williamson co-wrote the script, and he refreshingly holds back on the meta gymnastics that defined his early work. Meanwhile, John Hyams, the director of muscular genre films like “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” and “Alone,” brings to the table his skill with down-and-dirty action kinetics. The problem is that “Sick” isn’t particularly scary, and the stalking and slashing quickly grow repetitive. The punchline is a humdinger though, parodying the rigidity of anti-COVID fundamentalists who value their self-righteousness more than life itself. The politics of Blum’s productions, which include everything from the “Paranormal Activity” movies to “Get Out” to “The Purge” series, really is collectively fascinating, and a book on his work could make for a revealing peek at the evolving ideologies of the modern American horror film. (Streaming on Peacock.)

“The Old Way” (Brett Donowho)

Fans of Nicolas Cage’s cult-minded work see his new films for extremes, for electric, self-lacerating art (“Mandy” and “Mom and Dad” among them) or for an explosive, freeform medley of pathos and kitsch that’s unpredictable and virtually defies description (too many to name). It’s a regret to report that “The Old Way” is none of these things, but rather an elementally simple revenge western programmer in which Cage has decided to play things stoic and straight. This was the wrong project for Cage to go conventional with though, as this bare script can use whatever juice it can get. That said, it’s painless: competently directed by Donowho and with a strong performance by Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Cage’s young daughter. Their chemistry suggests a much better film, in fact. (Available on VOD.)

“Skinamarink” (Kyle Edward Ball)

This is the sort of movie that people ask you if you’ve seen with a hushed, anticipatory tone. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it enterprise, an extreme and committed work that pares the mechanics of the horror genre down to its absolute essentials. Forget “The Blair Witch Project,” that’s a Michael Bay movie compared to the minimalism of “Skinamarink.” For 100 minutes, you hear two children talking over the soundtrack, which is purposefully so inaudible it often requires subtitles to decipher. You never quite see them either, occasionally a limb or two, or a silhouette. The children search their suburban house. Their parents are gone and the doors and windows vanish, entrapping them. Most of the film is comprised of utterings, wanderings, with many, many canted close-ups of corridors and objects engulfed in shadows. Another voice that we hear is probably demonic. Certain images, especially one that could be of a portal to God Knows Where, are terrifying. But the movie is a handful of images and sounds repeated ad infinitum. It’s no surprise to learn that “Skinamarink” began as a short film because that’s still what it is. Just much, much longer. For this viewer, it was too damned, ungodly slow to be scary. You certainly feel the children’s entrapment. That cannot be denied. Destined to be a cult classic whether you like it or not. (Playing at Movieland.)

“Candy Land” (John Swab)

A killer targets a group of truck stop sex workers, aka “lot lizards,” while an ex-communicated fundamentalist attempts to learn the ropes of the life. The entire film is set at a truck stop, primarily a parking lot and a nearby motel where the prostitutes live, and Swab displays a level of insight for the people and atmosphere that is borderline miraculous in a horror-movie setting. Quite a bit of “Candy Land” is a character study, a portrait of how the women and one man pass the time between johns, and of how a delicate balance of power is struck between the Madam (Guinevere Turner) and a corrupt and closeted cop (William Baldwin). The killings are pitiless, understood by Swab to be a savage expression of repressed desires, which the quick, sad, tepid sexual encounters can barely alleviate. Think “X” meets “Saint Maud” but with a current of feeling that vastly eclipses both of those films. And Swab doesn’t pull his punches, following his premise all the way down the road to hell, as a zealot annihilates everything in his or her path. “Candy Land” is a major discovery, and Swab is someone to watch closely. (Available on VOD.)

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